Brief Book Review: The Tiger

A tiger will see you a hundred times before you see him once.

It might be difficult to imagine a tiger (most known for lounging in the African savannah) surviving in a place where spit freezes before it hits the ground. But in Russia’s Far East, not only do they survive, they command.

In a small logging town called Soblonye, local bushmen respect the tiger not as one of god’s creatures, but a god in itself. Stretching up to 9-feet long, the Amur tiger has the agility of a cat and momentum of an industrial refrigerator. Able to jump the width of a road from standstill in dead silence and equipped with daggered paws that could smother a face, the belief goes in the taiga (the Russian word for forest) you live only because the tiger allows it.

The tiger also has another name: Toyota, which is what you can buy if you catch one. Professional poachers and village locals alike often undertake the unenviable task of trying to track and kill an Amur tiger. One for profit, the other out of pure desperation. Soblonye’s isolation, poverty and habitat makes it an easy place to forget, leaving many of its 200 residents living off the frozen soil in dilapidated caravans that hardly keep out the wind. A tiger is their one remaining chance at a new life.

The Tiger tells the story of a man stretched between human and nature. In one hand crouches the Amur tiger, a heavily endangered, beautiful species that can kill in a heartbeat. In the other lies a forgotten population faced with the choice to poach or starve. His job is to protect both, apprehending and de-arming poachers to preserve the dwindling tiger population while taking action when one gets the taste for human blood.

John Vaillant expertly weaves context and narrative, offering enough history and politics to lay the book’s foundations while building personal stories of struggle and survival that keep you reading. At times one feels the need to shut the book for fear of being sucked into this alien world where warmth takes a significance closer to oxygen and death lurks amongst the trees.


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